1825 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Southey

Anonymous, "On the Poetry of Southey" The Minerva [New York] NS 2 (2 April 1825) 412-13.



Among those who have laboured to "build the lofty rhyme," inclination as well as justice induces me to notice Southey. I would have come to this self-imposed duty with unmixed satisfaction, but that, unfortunately, is impossible; for no two beings can be more dissimilar than the youthful enthusiast, who in the wild fervour of imagination breathed the truly poetical rhapsodies of the Joan of Arc, and the starched, precise, thorough-bred courtiers who at present employs his pen on dull histories and duller odes. And how can we praise the prophet of the Muses, whose irregular yet bewitching voice once held our souls spell-bound with wonder and delight, without remembering that he has exchanged his heaven-tuned lyre for the droning, monotonous bagpipe of a poet-laureat? Who, with feelings and affections open to the enchantments of genius, can be insensible to his mysterious, unearthly, but attractive theme, who embodied all the intense passion of his nature in the grand though phantastic creations of his fancy, and threw at will around the Madoc, the Kehama, and the Thalaba of his tale, a brightness of intellectual glory, which elicits from our hearts that applause which our judgment might have denied? — But while we thus luxuriate on the Southey of other days, should some of the bulky abortions of his later years, stately and repulsive as the Gog and Magog of Guildhall, be obtruded on our notice, can we forbear exclaiming "how is the mighty fallen?" — For who, without demonstrative proofs of the fact, would believe that the bard of Roderic was the author of those interminable quartos on the Brazillian History? The butt of sack, from which the poet how regales himself, rather than from the pure fountain of inspiration, seems with its somnifying fumes to have darkened the once keen vision of his intellect, and every object on which he now expatiates is beheld through the "palpable obscure" of a court atmosphere. Strange, that a man so highly gifted should have sunk into a mere vender of "flattery plums" and "oil of fool;" should have sacrificed his fair fame for a cask of muddy wine, and with far less excuse than Esan, since the mess of pottage for which he sold his birthright was necessary to the preservation of his life But perhaps a decay of mental power, not a longing after the fish-pots of Egypt, has led to the declension which every lover of fine writing will lament; and it must be said of Southey, as was once said of the veteran dramatist Cumberland,

Now his fame has grown maudlin, he writes for the fees,

And the mental wine gone, he gets drunk with the lees.

Southey has displayed so much alacrity in sinking, that it would he difficult to find any point of resemblance between his early effusions and the hobbling Pindarics which have libelled his reputation since the poetic wreath was placed on his brow. It is painful to look over such trash, with which no printer would have cumbered his press, but for the influence of the writer's name: in which royalty is rendered utterly ridiculous by excessive adulation, and the Lord's anointed is set up like the golden image of Nabonasser, that fools may fall down and worship, while sensible people pass by and laugh.

Southey's poetical works, even the most estimable of them, are so voluminous, that a cursory glance in passing is all we can afford them. At this moment my eye falls on an appalling pile of his lucubrations in quarto, they are a load for a sturdy porter. I have Shakespeare and Milton in a nutshell to speak comparatively, yet if the public like large types and wide margins, the bookseller is not to blame for indulging the whim, and to say the truth, notwithstanding the old saw that a great book is a great evil, there is much in these volumes "which posterity will not willingly let die." The first considerable production of the author's was Joan of Arc, a work on which he poured out all the ardour and enthusiasm of his youth; the fable of the poem is too well known to call for any remarks here, and though there are many glaring defects in the execution of the poet's own conception, it is impossible to deny that the true spirit of inspiration and poetry is breathed aver the whole.

Thalaba the Destroyer is, according to the bard himself, "a wild and wondrous song," all attention to probability or even possibility is forgotten, and the reader is treated to a course of as stark "midsummer madness" as ever was concocted by an unhappy wight afflicted with scriblomania, and

Weaving fine fancies fit for skull
That's empty when the moon's at full.

Yet if it be madness, "there is method in it," and however monstrous and unnatural the outlines of the picture, it is drawn by the hand of genius.

The design of Madoc is so extensive, that it was hardly possible for the author to expect more than partial success; the subject has so many ramifications, that it was highly improbable the same degree of interest could be infused into them all. But even to fail in such an undertaking would have been glorious, and it is evident that the writer has been eminently happy in many portions of the work. The blank verse employed is particularly harmonious, and is fully sufficient to show that the Laureat has "music in his soul." The lines, which form a sort of preface to the Curse of Kehama, give the reader due intimation that all the usual rules of composition are disregarded.

For I will for no man's pleasure
Change a syllable or measure;
Pedants shall not tie my strains,
To our antique poets' veins;
Being born as free as these,
I will sing as I shall please.

And in this departure from the more ordinary modes of writing, the author has given an example of judicious daring, which cannot be too highly appreciated. The ultra-romance of the poem in question would have found a very unsuitable vehicle in pompous heroics, or unvarying blank verse; lines constantly recurring of similar length and sound, would have expressed but feebly the passions am feelings and fantasies of this singular work, while the rambling, unfettered metre which is chosen, adds all the force of language and all the power of inartificial melody to the effect produced by the strange and harrowing incidents of the story.

Roderic, the Last of the Goths, is one of the finest narrative poems in any language, and incomparably the most successful effort of its author. The story of the work is deeply interesting; and the interest is of a kind felt equally by every reader. Such beings as the awful Kehama and the terrible Thalaba, though they may excite our wonder and reverence, have little or no claim to the milder, more human feelings of pity and affection. But for the wandering Roderic, in sorrow and suffering, who having sinned on a throne, is doomed to expiate his offences in the fires of affliction, we feel as for our brother man, and remember while we lament his miseries, that they might have been ours. Here criticism is silent, for the errors are too slight for animadversion, and unmixed praise is generally heard with suspicion. But the Vision of Judgment — what can I say of the Vision of Judgment? Nothing. Had the subject of these remarks concluded his literary labours with the poem of Roderic, few of his competitors in the eager and anxious pursuit of fame, would have gone down to posterity with less disputed claims to distinction. The mongrels of criticism had well nigh yelped their last, and the most insensible to his talents were beginning to discover "that the fellow was clever." The flattering prospect was soon to be checkered with clouds, and at a moment when it was obvious that the malevolence of others could not ruin him, the bard became the suicide of his own reputation. Surely, the patronage and support of a grateful nation, were more valuble, even in a pecuniary point of view, than the vails of a court. Surely it was more honourable, with the warm feelings of independence, and the thrill of enthusiasm, to speak the language which his own ardent spirit dictated, than to become the hired bardling of the great, furnishing his quota of fulsome compliments for an annual butt of wine. The author of Thalaba and Madoc was regarded by all the, good and wise with deep feelings of esteem, gratitude, and love; of esteem for his exalted genius, of gratitude for the mode in which it was exerted, and of love for his generous efforts in the cause of truth and justice. The manufacturer of unreadable hexameters, soporific odes, and never-to-be-ended histories, is the theme of universal — But I fear I shall grow too personal, and will express my meaning in a couple of lines:

Southey writes prose, and no one heeds it,
Southey writes verse, but no one reads it!